Schick Hydro Preview: Wests Tigers v Cronulla Sharks
If stats are anything to go by, then the 10th placed Wests Tigers and the 9th placed Sharks are set to put on a show on Saturday evening.
For starters, both teams are 2-2. The Sharks have run for 5,660 metres, while the Tigers have 5,657m so far in 2016. The Tigers have missed 102 tackles, the Sharks 100. And when they met in the pre-season, they couldn't be split at 30-30.
The Tigers will be desperate to avoid a third straight loss, while the Sharks will want to build on the momentum gained from Monday's win over the previously unbeaten Storm.
The hosts welcome back Chris Lawrence from suspension. He'll be joined in a reshuffled back-row by Dene Halatau, which forces Kyle Lovett and Josh Aloiai back to the bench. Robbie Farah has been named at No.9 after starting from the bench against the Eels.
Sharks skipper Paul Gallen returns from a knee injury suffered in Round 1. His inclusion moves Jayson Bukuya to the bench, while Gerard Beale drops out of the 17.
Watch out Tigers: While their edge defence has been more than solid in the opening month of football, Wests Tigers will want to shore up their middle-third when they take on the Sharks. Big forwards Junior Paulo, Ryan James, Martin Taupau and Simon Mannering have all gone over through the teeth of the Tigers' defence. When the sides met in the trials, both Luke Lewis and Sam Tagatese were able to score thanks to crafty work from Michael Ennis – arguably the most lethal No.9 in the red-zone. And just for something out of left field, the Tigers have lost their last five matches the week after having played the Eels.
Watch out Sharks: If their start to the season is anything to go by, then the Sharks are destined to lose this one. Their record in 2016 reads: loss (away), win (home), loss (away), win (home). Rugby league isn't played on paper, but this is one worrying early season trend the Sharks will want to address immediately.
Key match-up: James Tedesco v Ben Barba. Saturday evening's clash will be a showdown between two fullbacks touted as possible State of Origin bolters in 2016. James Tedesco has been in scintillating form over the past 12 months, and his early season form justifies why many are calling for him to play for the Blues. The Tigers No.1 leads the league with five tries and 29 tackle breaks, he averages 156.9 metres per game and boasts two try saves. Ben Barba, meanwhile, is inching closer to his 2012 Dally M form. The Sharks custodian has two tries, three try saves and has defused every kick sent his way. No wonder Kevin Walters has earmarked him as one to watch for the Maroons.
The history: Played 26; Wests Tigers 17, Sharks 8, Drawn 1. Wests Tigers have enjoyed plenty of success over the Sharks, including an incredible stretch from 2003-2012 that saw them win 13 of 14. Cronulla won the only meeting last year 40-18, with Valentine Holmes scoring a double and running for a whopping 217 metres. The record at Campbelltown is fairly even, with the Tigers winning six, Sharks five and one match drawn.
What are the odds: The Sharks have been very well backed, with Sportsbet reporting 80 per cent of the head-to-head money being placed on the visitors. Cronulla 13+ is the way they're going as far as winning margin is concerned, although James Tedesco is best backed for first tryscorer. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Adam Devcich. Assistant referee: Chris James. Sideline officials: Russell Turner and Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 5.00pm (AEDT).
The way we see it: The Tigers started the year with so much promise, winning their first two games, but have since fallen to the Titans and Eels. Saturday's clash will be their first game against a 2015 top-eight side, and it won't be easy against an in-form Cronulla team. A win would propel the Sharks to 3-2, and after starting last season 0-4, it's a scenario they'd gladly take. The game will come down to the Tigers' potent attack against the Sharks' frugal defence. Perhaps a moment of magic from one of the two star fullbacks could be the difference. Sharks by 6.